John Shand Sydney Morning Herald
After a lifetime playing jazz, his peers rate him alongside the world’s best
It usually takes only one note. One dry, crackling note on that alto saxophone confirms it’s Bernie McGann, the most distinctive jazz musician Australia has produced. Given that jazz individuality in the post-modern era too often amounts to just gathering together the nail-clippings of this idiom and that, McGann, who turns 75 today, is the real thing.
”With all the great jazz musicians,” says Paul Grabowsky, McGann’s pianist for the birthday-celebration concerts, ”whether you’re talking Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans, the thing that first and foremost makes them stand apart is the sound they make. And Bernie is in that league because nobody makes that sound except him …
”There are two things about his sound that make me think he is the great Australian jazz player. One is the dryness, which really does sum up for me the heat of an Australian summer, and the other is the peculiar vocalisation that his sound creates, which reminds me of certain Australian bird calls.” It is as if the bush crept inside McGann’s saxophone during all the hours he spent practising in Royal National Park 40 years ago.
It was not always so instinctive for McGann. ”There was a time when I was younger if I played something I didn’t like I’d be devastated,” he recalls, ”or if I had a bad night it’d be like suicide. Which is stupid. But at the same time when you’re young and you have a good night it’s pure elation that carries you.
”When you get older that doesn’t happen. It’s just another gig and you hope you did reasonably well, and maybe might have surprised yourself a bit. That’s the important thing: to surprise yourself. Cos you hear yourself all the time.”
Grabowsky says McGann’s ability to generate surprise is further evidence of him being ”the greatest jazz musician that we’ve ever produced”. Melbourne’s Grabowsky first heard Sydney’s McGann about 1986, 30 years into the latter’s career.
Grabowsky’s assessment of McGann hasn’t changed: ”He’s like a great painter who’s developed this style, and then refines it and refines it. But everything that he does is unmistakable because of the style … The last gigs that I did with him were some of the most memorable jazz playing I’ve been involved with.”
McGann says making music with Grabowsky, Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Tim Firth (drums) is as good a way to celebrate his 75th as he can imagine.